Nov. 9, 2003, 7:45PM


Masterworks' Walt Whitman-text concert both complementary, splashy

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Houston musical groups are introducing the city to lots of interesting repertoire this fall. Two examples -- choral-orchestral pieces with texts by Walt Whitman -- made for a splashy season-opening concert by the Houston Masterworks Chorus.

Poetry by the 19th-century American has enormously influenced composers. An 1868 edition of selections from Whitman's epochal The Leaves of Grass introduced England to his work. Several key English composers were swept up by his iconoclastic verse.

Two resulting works made up Saturday's performance at Rice University: Frederick Delius' Sea Drift and Ralph Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony. Together, they were intriguingly complementary.

Delius chose a long poem with a tight focus. The narrator observes a pair of nesting birds. The female - “she-bird" is Whitman's term - ­disappears. The hopes and dashed dreams of her mate, "he bird," prompt an effusive meditation on the loss.

A Sea Symphony was much more grand-- and occasionally grandiloquent, undoubtedly reflecting the collective memory of a nation that built its power on ships. Vaughan Williams picked four portions of verse that allowed him to structure his work like a traditional four-movement symphony. He called his movements A Song for All Seas and All Ships On the Beach at Night Alone, The Waves and The Explorers.

Ironically, Delius' was the flabbier, more elusive setting. Using amorphous and ambiguous harmonic progressions, he diffused Whitman's storytelling.

Vaughan Williams, in contrast, wrote a vivid and compelling work. True, some stretches meandered aimlessly Saturday, but the opening brass fanfare and choral outburst were a thrilling prelude to a sometimes ebullient, sometimes guarded celebration of the sea.

With the deeply involved leadership of HMC music director Craig Hella Johnson, both works received flowing, often stirring performances.

Sea Drift required a baritone soloist; A Sea Symphony used both baritone and soprano.

Houstonian Nancy Curtis soared authoritatively over orchestra and chorus at the peaks of the Vaughan Williams. Gerald Dolter, a Texas Tech University professor with extensive opera experience in Germany, sang with fine nuance and coloration; he floated half-voice high notes with particular beauty. But for long stretches in the Delius he didn't have the color and core power to stand out against the large orchestra and chorus behind him.

The chorus itself sang as if enjoying this unfamiliar music thoroughly. The altos consistently produced a glorious sound. Had the entire ensemble matched them, the evening would have been the group's best ever. As it was, one or two tenor voices dominated the color of the section's singing.

The excellent orchestra, which included several Rice University faculty and the best freelance musicians, gave soloists and chorus a rich accompaniment that alternately glowed and roiled as Whitman's text changed.

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